11 lessons I’ve learned about developing a successful startup

A changing role

For many years our company just provided development services. Clients would come to us with a project, we would create the app or website they wanted and then hand it over. Deal done, project complete. In some cases our ‘technical partner’ status involved a more ongoing commitment, but still our role was purely technical and the business end of things was in the client’s hands. We still take on a lot of these sorts of projects, but over the last couple of years we’ve been excited to step into a more holistic ‘business development’ role with several of our clients as well as with our own in-house startups.

This has been a defining period in the growth of eKreative; it’s not only opened up a new side to our business, it’s also allowed us to optimise our regular development work to reflect our new understanding of the business end of things. Previously we only saw one small part of the business process (developing a product or tool), but having gained a more complete view of the business process, we’re now better than ever at delivering on the technical end.

New challenges

Stepping into this new role has been exciting, but it’s also contained a lot of challenges, taking us out of our comfort zone time and again. As the CEO of an existing software company, I’d say that the best analogy I have for moving into business development is that it’s like when you have another child enter the family and you need to go through all the sleepless nights, feeding, changing and so on all over again; pains and challenges which you’ve been through once before (with your own business) but somehow the memory of them had changed somewhat over the years.

Lessons Learned

In the list which follows I’ve collected 11 different lessons that I’ve learned during this period. They’re presented in no particular order, because they are all similarly significant, integrated with each other and important to implement as part of your way of doing things right from the begining of the startup process (With the exception of number 11 which is more of a second phase step). Without further ado then:

  1. The first thing I learned moving into the startup world is that in a tech startup (ie. the product is an app, site or digital service), developing a great product is approximately 20% of the work. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like big news to you, but my understanding before was that having a great product was more like 90% of the process. In actual fact there are a whole raft load of other considerations that need to be kept under control, from rollout strategy and customer retention to pricing issues and marketing materials and the list goes on and on. Appreciating the amount of work it takes to turn a great product into a successful business was a real eye opener!
  2. The next thing I learned was that there’s no such thing as a CEO at a startup. At least at the beginning. Of course you’ll still need to take the power decisions and investor meetings, but at the beginning of the startup process everyone involved needs to be ready to pitch in at every level, no one can be above even the humblest types of work.
  3. It’s incredibly useful for the CEO to see the product from the customer’s perspective. Spending a month answering support tickets was an invaluable way for me personally to understand my product from the point of view of those that aren’t as familiar with it as I am. I got to find out first hand the concerns that people had, the ways that they were using or wanted to use our product as well as seeing which elements in the UI were not quite as intuitive as anticipated. This then informed the ongoing development of the product as well as the way that we communicate about the product in marketing materials. In addition, even though I eventually passed the support work on to a more specialised support team, we continue to keep that team in the loop with the development guys, as the insights they can offer into the customer’s perspective are invaluable.
  4. Whether you’re the founder, CEO, or hired by them to lead a startup’s development, whoever is in the driving seat of the development process needs to have a personal connection to the problem the startup is trying to solve. This will give your effort a much greater chance of success than if you’re trying to solve a problem you’ve only heard about second hand. By way of example, Kidslox is startup I lead the business development of which helps parents control children’s screen time. Being a father myself and being very aware of the potential bad effects of technology I feel a deep personal connection and need for the product which drives and informs its development.
  5. I recently saw an internet meme going round reminding us of this savvy marketing observation: there’s no more B2B or B2C only H2H (human to human). Perhaps I’m repeating myself a little here, but it really is key. If you want to succeed you can’t treat your customers as numbers on a spreadsheet, you have to get onto the level of human interaction with them. This has 2 key benefits, the first I described above is that interaction with customers through support tools such as Apptentive or Apteligent can inform your development process. The second is that when someone comes to us with a complaint or problem, (maybe they’ve just had a bad day or read the product instructions wrong) if we treat them as a human being we can potentially turn their whole experience around and they can end up becoming evangelists for us. There’s so much value in good customer support that accepts this principle that at some digital service companies like Transferwise, over half of the employees work in support!
  6. All decisions must be data driven! No decisions at a startup should be motivated solely by “because it’s cool” or “it’s the latest technology” or even “it will make the product better” if that claim doesn’t come backed up with data. In a startup you can’t afford to waste time, money and work on potential dead end experiments. From day 1 and even before you launch you need multiple analytics suites plugged into your systems to help inform your decision making. Google analytics and Flurry you can use for free, Mixpanel gives you real time analysis of where potential users are in your funnels and where they drop off along the road to conversion. Even ASSEO decisions need to be based on data; little details like icon colour and video explanation wording can have a big impact.
  7. There are no ‘small decisions’. As mentioned above, the colour of an icon can really affect sales. There are numerous other decisions which might seem trivial, but each one plays a surprisingly key role in impacting the success of your startup. Examples include button positions, small variations in price, text used to explain the product in the store, how fast the site loads and how easy your app is to navigate.
  8. No matter what else you read or hear, no matter what the fashionable metric to obsess about is this week, the one KPI which you should be focussed on improving above all else is this: acquiring the most new users in the shortest possible time! The decisions you need to make should all be streamlined towards this end. Ask yourself, “will this decision boost the number of new users we’re able to get this month?”, or if a decision has several possible user boosting resolutions, “which option will increase the number of new users by more this month?” A lot of startups fold fast and this is in most cases essentially either because there aren’t enough users paying to keep funding the startup or because potential investors don’t have faith in the startups ability to find those users. To steer clear of this end, make sure your decisions are focussed on increasing user numbers from the start.
  9. Learn to say ‘NO’! As a developer from a tech background you always want to say yes to as much as possible. It’s exciting to create things: the more you can make or the more complicated a thing you can make, the more interesting a project it is. As a business though, this is a dangerous fallacy. As Facebook famously says “done is better than perfect” and this is absolutely true. If you have a release target to meet (and you need to be releasing regular updates to increase the impact of your user acquiring decisions) but some elements are not ready or you’ll have to leave some planned features out of the mix, go ahead and release anyway. The mvp for most startups shouldn’t take longer than 2 to 3 months to develop, then you can start getting users and making development decisions based on real data.
  10. Use high quality, professional content writing. When you come out onto the market you need to effectively communicate to your potential users who you are and what you’re all about. Sometimes as tech people we’re not very good about explaining ourselves and our products to customers. Even when we’re confident in our communication skills we can get so wrapped up in the details of a product that we begin to make assumptions about user understanding which just aren’t true. We need to have professional communicators on our team, as a great product that nobody understands the need for or how to use, is not going anywhere.
  11.  Multilingual support is crucial, especially in an app based business. OK, I concede that this one needn’t be your very first priority, but assuming that it is an app based business we’re talking about, you’ll need to go there at some point. In today’s integrated world you can’t build for just one market or you’ll be left behind by those who do expand beyond the walls of a single language marketplace. Service like Crowdin can help you make the move into localisation.

Every one of these lessons and observations has been hard won and become instrumental in the success of both our own startups and those that we provide business development for as a service. I hope you can use them to make your own move into business development a success or to make fresh headway with your startup idea!